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Pride and Prejudice
Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection

Pride and Prejudice
Warner DVD
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 118 min. / Street Date September 12, 2006 / 19.98 / Also available in the Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection with Treasure Island, Marie Antoinette, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, at 49.98
Starring Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Mary Boland, Edna May Oliver, Maureen O'Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Frieda Inescort, Edmund Gwenn, Heather Angel, Marsha Hunt
Cinematography Karl Freund
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Robert Kern
Original Music Herbert Stothart
Written by Aldous Huxley, Jane Murfin from the book by Jane Austen
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Jane Austen's 19th century soap opera lends itself perfectly to movie adaptation, as can be seen in many successful television and film versions. MGM's 1940 effort is certainly one of the better ones, although any semblance of the real past is blurred in the high-toned production values. Even the near-bankrupt Bennets live in a mansion with servants and ride in a liveried coach. But there's no arguing with the presence of Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, and most of the rest of the casting is equally well judged. Considering all the terrible things MGM could have done with the property (Lana Turner! June Allyson!), this version turned out well indeed.


Fearful of losing their home to Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper), Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland) takes a frenzied approach to finding suitable husbands for her five daughters. She hurries to them to two eligible and rich bachelors, Charles Bingley (Bruce Lester) and Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier), when her quiet husband Mr. Bennet (Edmund Gwenn) has already seen to the problem. Beautiful Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) instantly attracts the attention of Bingley, but eldest daughter Elizabeth (Greer Garson) is infuriated by Mr. Darcy's upper class snobbery and spurns his advances. In subsequent meetings Elizabeth is further aggravated by Bingley's noxious sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and the necessity of avoiding the unpleasant Mr. Collins. Collins toadies to his imperious benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver), who is in a position to disinherit most of her younger relatives. Elizabeth eventually warms to Mr. Darcy's contrite and polite insistence of innocence, until her mother's loose tongue gives Darcy the idea that the girls are laying a middle-class trap for both he and Bingley. The two men return to London, ruining all plans for marriage.

2005's version of Pride and Prejudice wasn't all that bad but suffered from Kiera Knightley's shark-like smile and smothered in a thick overlay of picture postcard visuals. The story is one of those un-killable gems that everyone understands: The family must find a way to marry off its daughters if it expects to keep a roof over its head. When put in film form Jane Austen's view of class differences limits the world of Old England to the generational redistribution of upper class wealth. Some folks have it and some don't, and being left behind or being declassed by the fortunes of marriage and birth can make the difference between a future in society and the utter doom of becoming shamed poor relations.

Austen's comedy gives us a mother turned social maniac; Mrs. Bennet can be forgiven for running around like a chicken with her head chopped off only because she thinks she's fighting for her family's survival. As it is, her embarrassing social disasters end up being totally irrelevant; her two eldest daughters are sensible, beautiful and utterly well-mannered, and can easily slay the local competition when it comes time to attract the genus bacchelorus ontheprowlus. Even when they've caught the interest of a likely pair of swains, the road to matrimony is tough haul. Mom is only the most visible liability. Youngest sister Mary (Marsha Hunt) sings horribly, wears glasses and is a bookworm. Kitty and Lydia (Heather Angel and Ann Rutherford) go gaga over anything in a uniform. Cousin Collins (Melville Cooper) is a cowardly weasel quick to curry favor with his benefactress Lady Catherine.

The incredibly pure Jane merely enjoys her future husband Bingley and suffers when he goes away, swayed by his sister's snooty schemes. But the eldest Elizabeth is the classic Austen heroine. She questions the workings of the system and challenges the petty bigotry of the upper class. Instead of melting before the self-important Darcy, she throws his attitude back in his face. Naturally, this only makes her five times more attractive in his eyes. Love, fate and the kind of miraculous coincidences found only in romance literature will save the day.

If that's all there was to Elizabeth Bennet Pride and Prejudice would be a fairly thin story. Elizabeth possesses even more admirable traits. Surrounded by incompetence and malice, she refuses to sully herself in fights beneath her dignity. Even when humiliated by her mother, Elizabeth never says an ungrateful or negative word about her. She suffers fools lightly, avoiding Mr. Collins' clodhopper proposals but avoiding telling him the truth to his face. Even when confronted by the blackguard George Wickham (Edward Ashley) she abstains from accusations and scenes that would jeopardize the happiness of her sister Kitty.

Austen holds these virtues as paramount. Elizabeth allows other people find their way through life without pretending that her personal approval or disapproval is an important factor. When the foolish Kitty cannot wait to tell how happy she is, Elizabeth just says she'll want to know about that five years from now. Mother believes that she alone has made everyone happy, an illusion that both Elizabeth and her knowing father see no reason to disturb. In any other family, Mrs. Bennet would finish the story tied up in the attic with a sock in her mouth.

Of course, the author's confections conspire to make a lot of this high-mindedness possible. Elizabeth just happens to be invited to opportune gatherings to continue her sparring with Darcy. The thick headed Darcy nonetheless is inspired to throw a sum of money at the Kitty problem, in a quiet, behind-the-scenes sort of way. Elizabeth is a romance novel version of Wonder Woman: She's drop dead gorgeous, refined and unafraid to speak honestly before her supposed superiors. She also has the fastest wit in the conservatory and shoots an arrow better than Robin Hood. Elizabeth Bennet is a formidable identification figure, and a positive one. She's an excellent character study.

Greer Garson was 36 years old when she made Pride and Prejudice and although she does seem far more 'mature' than her sisters (well, some of them) she manages to pull off the almost-a-debutante illusion. Although not the best of Louis B. Mayer's imports, she didn't do at all badly (Random Harvest); perhaps Garson's saving grace is that she wasn't turned into one of Mayer's operetta mannequins. Laurence Olivier has merely to look dispeptic or cross-eyed to suggest inner turmoil in the thinly written Darcy, but he holds our full attention whenever he enters a scene. Olivier's underplaying avoids the feeling of bored contempt he gives some of his later roles, but he's obviously too rich a talent for Hollywood.

Warners' DVD of Pride and Prejudice looks fine; Karl Freund's rich B&W photography gives the high-key MGM house style an extra polish. The disc extras don't fit the tone of the movie. Eyes of the Navy is not a Crime Does Not Pay entry as touted in the box text but is instead a full-on enlistment pitch for Navy aviation, aimed to make farm boys think that they too can become Luke Skywalker. The Fishing Bear turned out to be a Technicolor Barney Bear cartoon, which Savant can't stomach. If one of these Barney Bear efforts is really a masterpiece, someone let me know and I'll watch it all the way through. A trailer rounds out the package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pride and Prejudice rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Short Eyes of the Navy, Cartoon The Fishing Bear, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 18, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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